This piece was originally written for and published on InsideOver
“For Sale: 3+1 Villa, Comes With EU Residency Permit”
“REDUCED GOLDEN VISA OPTION: Hurry, selling fast!”
There are ads like this on the internet. You may buy yourself European citizenship if you are willing to invest 500,000 € and wait a couple of years for naturalization. The reduced option mentioned here is a 30 % reduction in the investment cost for buildings that are more than 30 years old and in need of renovation. That is 350,000 € instead of 500,000.
“Cash-for-passport!” started in the Pacific and Caribbean in the 1980's; and today, there are many countries giving out these Golden Visas. They are called golden visas because just like the gold credit cards without limits, people with money can get access to the world without borders.
Even the US and UK have them. They are just a bit more on the expensive side, that's all. In most cases, you don't necessarily need to reside in these countries. You go and stay there for a short period of time, then you go on living your normal life in your own country. After about 5-6 years you can apply for citizenship. Your family can get citizenship through you as well.
In her book “The Cosmopolites” Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writes how the UAE- United Arab Emirates bought citizenship to solve its bidoon problem. Bidoon means “without” in Arabic. The bidoon are the stateless people within the country, those without citizenship. The Emirates did not know what to do with them. These people basically had a right to citizenship but were unaware at the time that they needed to apply or did not bother with it thinking they'd go on living the way they have been living, they did not see the point. Then, there came a point where bureaucracy got more complex and they couldn't live their normal lives without papers.
So why didn't the UAE simply give them papers? The answer lies in basic economics and politics. An Emirati has a house provided for him, has a fixed regular sum paid, gets extra cash when getting married. All these mean you get a share of the oil money. Whereas this is distributed carefully among family lines. The other side of the coin was politics. The Emirates did not wish to grant citizenship to people who might be their opponents. Yet, they were being pressured by the international community to solve the problem of stateless people. UNHCR has an #IBelong campaign to end statelessness by 2024. So the Emirates found a better solution. Buy citizenship from a poor neighbor country, the Comoro Islands. A place where most of the bidoon had not even heard of and would never set foot on in their lives. In fact, that was among the deal, the Comorans were not going to be burdened with their new “compatriots”.
The president of the Comoros was excited about the offer, this was money which the poor island could use to fix its roads, build some infrastructure. It was a win-win for both parties. UAE got an extra win because you cannot deport the stateless people in your country as they do not have any papers. In fact, one dissident was told he needed to get citizenship in order to renew his car's plate license, then he was promptly deported.
You get the “genuine” form of citizenship either by blood, jus sanguinis, through your parents or by being born within a country, jus soli, where countries recognize it. That's why there is even birth-tourism to the US for example and Trump has being talking about ending this birthright.
There is also citizenship by marriage, jus matrimonii. Then there is naturalization for people who reside in a territory for a certain period of time.
As Encyclopædia Britannica states, citizenship is the “relationship between an individual and a state to which the individual owes allegiance and in turn is entitled to its protection.”
There are duties, rights, and privileges of citizenship. Your political and social rights derive from the contribution you make to the community, the public life. You participate in the economy by working by consuming goods, you pay taxes, you do your military service or abide by other social obligations that the state imposes on you. Then you have rights like access to public services, e.g. schools, hospitals, roads etc. and the right to have a say in the political arena by voting or being eligible for elections yourself. When you are travelling abroad, you have a right to protection by your state. This is like the active membership to a club.
Now, at another end of the spectrum is the citizenship by investment or Economic Citizenship. The wealthy can buy citizenship, but countries cannot really buy loyalty. When the “dirty” proposal was first made by the Emirates, some Comoran parliament members opposed to the plan. They claimed it would be like selling a piece of the country's soul.
Today, many rich Russian and Chinese have gotten foreign “Western” passports this way. Some businessmen carry a portfolio of 5-6 different passports.
The question to ask is... When there is a price tag on citizenship and passports, what does nationality even mean?
This piece was originally written for and published on InsideOver:
Istanbul re-elections in Turkey has resulted with the loss of the government party AKP's candidate, the former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. The winner Ekrem İmamoğlu's slogan for the campaign was “Herşey Çok Güzel Olacak”- “Everything Will Be Very Beautiful.” After the elections people went out in the streets, celebrating until late hours; messages declaring “Everything has been very good now” flooded social media. There was victory in the air, there was euphoria. The cafes and restaurants on the main avenues of Istanbul profited nicely from it. What most people do not wish to confess even to themselves is that everything has not been, cannot be very good with just one election. They either do not realize or do not wish to see that this feeling of euphoria is temporary.
The slogan with which İmamoğlu came to power, “Everything will be beautiful” is superficial. True, we live in a world where politicians and ad agents make superficial assertions all the time, aiming at our soft, gullible sides. Trump promised a “beauuutiful” wall. It's easy to make people fall for false promises of rose gardens. That's why, we need to be more careful with political rhetoric.
First of all, running a metropolis of more than 15 million is a very challenging task. To be able to make such a strong claim that all is now very fine or will be, one needs to have accomplished something first. (Admitted, for supporters of the CHP, winning an election meant so much. It implied getting back some power. So it's an accomplishment on its own.)
Secondly, everything was not bad. What fanatical opponents of Erdoğan do not talk about is how advanced things are in Turkey. Criticize the president all you want, and there is reason for criticism in many places, but what's Ceaser's should be given to Ceaser.
Politics aside, public services work quite efficiently in Turkey. Be it being able to get on all public transportation, buses, trains, trams, metros, ferries, with an electronic-ticket Akbil, short for Akıllı Bilet- “Smart Ticket” or getting appointments in hospitals, being able to get blood tests efficiently. These are things that the capital cities of European countries like Rome lack. Turkey has quite a successful public health system, something that the “biggest” country in the world, the US has not been able to solve for years. There is health tourism to Turkey, with people coming from abroad for treatment at the big private hospitals. The post office, the banks... they work. What's more, they work well.
Albeit not perfectly, everything works in Turkey. There is an e-government system which now incorporates almost every public institution. You can see the properties you own, their location, their mortgage status, or view it from Google Maps. You can do all your taxes online. UYAP-Ulusal Yargı Ağı Projesi, “National Jurisdiction Network Project” is an online platform where any citizen can go and see all the lawsuits on his name, check out all the papers filed for the case, see all court proceedings. With an e-signature or a certified e-mail, one can do anything online without having the need to go to an office. Even the payments are online. Forms to fill are practical and easy.
The complaint procedures are there too. Any citizen can reach the presidency or the ombudsman with the click of a keyboard and he will get an answer. Of course, there is no guarantee that one will like or approve of the answers they get, but the system is there. And again, works.
When you need to go to any public office, all your data can be accessed with your Turkish ID number, so you can have the paper you need printed out in 20 seconds. Things do not work so efficiently in many European countries. Of course, there is a downside to all this. Government is too powerful, it has too much information about you. On the other hand, it is nice to be able to have paperwork done practically instead of suffering through bureaucracies as in Italy.
Turkey has made a leap in the international arena as well. In May 2009, Turkey had only 12 embassies in Africa, whereas now it has 39. DEIK-Dış Ekonomik İlişkiler Kurumu, Foreign Economic Relations Board has held the second Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum along with partnership of the African Union last October.
Turkish Airlines-THY is the airline connecting the world to most African countries, going where other airlines fear to fly. In 2009 it had 13 destinations to the continent, whereas now it has 51. It flies to 32 of the 54 countries in Africa. THY is not the biggest airline in the world by annual number of passengers, by passenger kilometers flown, by revenue or by fleet size. Yet, it is the airline flying to most countries in the world. It flies to 236 international destinations in 121 countries. The second runner-up is Air France flying to 91 countries. British Airways is third with 82 countries. So Turkey's flag-carrier airline lives up to its “Globally Yours” slogan.
My Italian husband is cautious if he should show me the newspaper clip saying Turkey is in competition with Italy for exporting pasta. Many Turkish firms are constructing airports, railroads, hospitals, doing big infrastructure investment in Africa, South America and Asia.
In the last couple of years, Turkey has also invested in Antarctica surprising many with the delegates sent to the conferences, setting up a Turkish Polar Research Center (PolReC). There has been three national expeditions in the last three years. Some countries have complimented Turkey that it has done much more research in that short amount of time than countries that have been there for decades.
There has been mega projects in Istanbul, like the third airport, the biggest in the world. The third bridge. The Euroasia Tunnel, world's first two-deck highway tunnel under the seabed.
So why, with all this good in Turkey, the backlash against Erdoğan or AKP?
First of all, there are always people questioning political decisions or the allocation of funds from the national budget. People disagree on what to do or how to do things. There is no way out of that.
Second, we all know power corrupts, Erdoğan's acting like a “sultan” probably played a part.
Another possible explanation may be found partly in the fact that gratefulness is not a lasting feeling in the political arena. What once upon a time looked like a dream (an efficient public administration system, a high-tech social environment in which business could thrive, quality public transportation at reasonable costs and a stunning set of modern infrastructures, a health system comparable to those of the so much envied western economies), rapidly loses its allure once achieved, starts being perceived as a commodity that is taken for granted.
Along with this “accomplishment effect”, a part of the explanation lies in the brisk slowing down of the economy which, in a fast and painful spiral, has brought about higher unemployment, higher inflation, higher interest rates and a sheer drop in the exchange rate of the Turkish lira. Coupled with the hardening of the government's grip on individual freedoms in the name of security, a growing sense of unrest in important areas of the country due to the revival of the Kurdish issue, reinforced by the difficult geopolitical scenario still hovering over the country, the Syrian crisis and number of refugees in Turkey, all have played a part.
On the other hand, the retaliation to the governing party is not new, there has been disgruntlement among the “elite” for a long time. Still, Erdoğan never really lost an election in all these almost two decades of rule. So why now?
Basically, the main opposition party CHP lacked real leadership. In Imamoğlu, people saw a glimmer of hope. Will he live up to the expectations of Istanbulites and the rest of the country? Who knows? But to say that everything has been very beautiful with the winning of Istanbul by CHP is too premature. If everything will be beautiful or not, only time can tell...
Everywhere around the world, local administrative elections suffer from the same manipulative interpretation patterns: If the country's ruling party wins a large city the vote is portrayed as an endorsement for the policies at the national level and a boost to continue along the path. Should the governing party lose ground, the failure is rapidly downsized to a local event, nothing to do with national policies. However, Istanbul being the economic, cultural, and historic center, being the heart of Turkey, puts this election on a different level. Erdoğan himself has said “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”
On 6th of July, the head of the central bank Murat Çetinkaya was sacked because of disagreement over the key policy decisions on interest rates and how to deal with the downfall of the Turkish lira which suffered a 30 % loss in value last year and 10 % more this year.
Two days later, Turkey's former economy minister and deputy prime minister Ali Babacan resigned from AKP citing deep differences in principles, values and thoughts. Babacan was among the founders of the party in 2001. There is talk about a new formation coming up in fall.
Perhaps it was time for some blood change in the country. Even though with age comes experience and wisdom, perhaps Erdoğan is getting old and losing the emotional touch with the electorate.
Whoever comes to take over, apart from being capable of running a country, keeping up the good that has been done, should remember not to end up trapped in the sticky webs of political rhetoric. Like the Spider-Man quote “With great powers come great responsibility.” And the important thing is to put that power to work for the advantage of the many. Well... That's wise advice that all politicians around the world could use.
Erdoğan had responded to İmamoğlu with “Everything will be better.” Everything being good and beautiful is utopia; “better”, we can aim for.
The story goes like this:
Chris, an Australian citizen, is travelling around in Asia. He wishes to go to Indonesia. He needs a visa. At the time he is in Thailand, so he goes to the Indonesian Embassy there. The lady at the embassy informs him:
“We do not issue visas here to third-world countries. You need to get it from the embassy in your home country.”
Chris is stupefied. He thinks to himself: “I knew our economy was going down and we had problems, but I had not realized we had sank down to the level of a third-world country.”
Of course, what the woman at the embassy meant by that was totally different to what Chris understood. First-world countries are your neighbors, second-world countries are countries in the same continent as you, and the third-world are all the rest.
It is now sort of politically incorrect to call a country third-world. They are rather called “developing” countries. And the way we use the term first and third-world today has nothing to do with how the term originated. It was during the Cold War era: The US and the countries aligned with NATO were first-world countries, the Soviet block was the second-world, and all the rest was the third-world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, first-world came to signify developed countries with high standards of living and strong economies, the rich and the “civilized”. In contrast, the third-world was the poor, under-developed ones.
In his article “Tra Bosnia e Croazia, Il “Gioco” dei Migranti per L'Europa”- The forgotten land migration route: “We all want to go to Italy”, Fausto Biloslavo writes that migrants call what they are doing the “World Game”.
While young migrants play this game, there is another game very similar to theirs played by a different group of people. That game is called the “Every Country Game”. And it seems to be getting popular every day if you have a look at the increase in number of the members of Every Passport Stamp group on Facebook or the news about someone being the first, youngest, fastest etc. to be to every country.
"With a membership of only approximately 100 people, it’s one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth. In fact, more people have been to outer space than have earned their way into this, the ultimate travel club..." announces Ric Gazarian in the introduction of his "Counting Countries" podcast interviewing the 193 country chasers.
Others playing this “Every Country Game” make similar claims: “5,000 people have climbed Everest whereas there are about 300 people who have been to every country in the history of mankind.” Emphasis is mine, just to show how people elevate their status by such exaggerations. What's our history, how long have we been around? It's just so short. Besides, a century ago there weren't countries like we know today. So who was to go to every country? Even if there were countries, people simply didn't have the opportunities we have today. It's just recently that we have these commercial flights, even the buses and cars to make it all possible. So now more people are joining the "club" of people who have completed the “Every Country Game”.
People in this game try to elevate their status with the number of countries they've been to. The basics is 193 UN countries. Then there are those who add the two observer states: the Holy See and Palestine. Some add Kosovo, Western Sahara and Taiwan to their list.
There are different travel clubs partitioning the world into different numbers. The oldest most known is the Traveler’s Century Club, which says the world is composed of 327 sovereign nations, territories, enclaves and islands. The Most Traveled Person divides the world into 891 unique parts. Nomad Mania divides it into 1,281 regions. And SISO says there are 3,978 places to visit if one wishes to see the world.
It sure is a game. Some play the basic game, the 193 countries. Others have more money, they play the game of going to every “territory" spending tens of thousands of dollars in order to get to some rocks in the middle of nowhere.
I don't know if it needs to be stated: The people playing this “Every Country Game” all have first-world passports, or at least some sort of strong passports. There is a whole range of nationalities that are missing among the “Every Country” chasers. Have a look at the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index- Global Travel Freedom at a Glance or at the info-graphic “How powerful is your passport?” by Ricky Linn. How do you expect an Afghani to play the “Every Country Game”? How can you expect any Pakistani to overcome all the hurdles to obtain a visa for the 160-165 countries that is required of him? As most people playing the “Every Country Game” agree, visas are one of the, if not the main obstacle to travel. Keep in mind, the people who are saying this have obtained only about 20-40 visas max. The rest was visa free or VOA (Visa on Arrival) for them.
So the game these people with first-world passports is basically this: Go to every country. Whereas migrants play a totally different travel game. Their game is: Go to this one country with the third-world passport you have. Without being caught and being too much beaten up by the police, without being robbed on the way or cheated by smugglers if possible. And of course, make it in one piece and alive!
Their challenge is the passport they carry. Their challenge is to cross borders and make it to one special country that is in their heart without the right passport. For the hundreds of thousands of people who are faced with barriers to go from one place to another, for those who are faced with deportation, who are put in detention centers, who die in unimaginable horrible circumstances... it's not a game. For them, travel and crossing borders is a matter of life or death.
The sad part is that the first-worlders are oblivious to the tribulations and the plight of the third-worlders.
First-world citizens play the “Every Country” game, third-world citizens play the “Reach This Country With This Shit Passport If You Can” game. They both form groups and share information amongst themselves, give each other tips on how to get around the troublesome points, give advice, names of places to stay, people to contact and maps to use. What both parties have in common apart from that is this: They all want to move around the world they were born on. However, it's not the same world they inhabit; they belong to two different worlds. Just like the menial first-world problems are much different than the real problems of the third-world the games they play are very different too.
PS: This piece was originally written for and published by InsideOver
Take the “The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your Perfect Kid-Friendly Road Trip" on Misadventures with Andi. This woman has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter.
Let's take a look at this “Ultimate” guide on travel with kids. What does it say?
- Make the Journey Part of the Fun- which basically says “Bring games and take detours if it seems interesting.”
- Break Up Long Drives
- Bring Plenty to Do
- Pack Accordingly
- Plan a Budget and Stick to it
I know... There is the classic stupid American stereotype, but is it really that ubiquitous? Do people really need to be told these things? This is not an “Ultimate” guide to anything, it is just some common-sense suggestions.
There are 13 comments. Let's scan them:
“I love your tips for traveling with kiddos!”
“These are such great tips for vacationing with young ones. Thank you so much for sharing”
“These are great tips.”
“What great tips!”
“These are fantastic tips.”
“So many great tips.”
“These are fabulous tips!”
I am appalled how... but I should not be appalled with such things anymore, I should know that this is how the world is and this is the capacity of the majority of people. When I was reading the comments to Carlo he commented: “You know there is an industry providing fake comments, right?”
I said “Yes, I know,” with a sigh of despair. Yes, it really makes me despair. It makes me despair, not for myself, but for the state of our world. We call ourselves homo-sapiens (how stuck-up is that?) when we actually are homo-banalus.
* I called this “The Ultimate Bullshit” but of course this is not the ultimate bullshit and banality. You may find much worse on the internet. In fact, the internet is full of so much bullshit and banality that it gets tiring to bump into them.
The ultimate guide to travel with children would be:
Know your child. Know yourself. Travel is not a must. Postpone it until both your child and you are ready. Wait until you can all enjoy it. Or, if you still choose to go ahead and travel, try to find something worthwhile in the experience, be it in the form of wisdom or relief that the trip has actually ended. Know that time passes and children grow up. And one day not too far away from now, you will be wondering where all that time went. Treasure every memory.
Bonus Tip: If you see anybody who has posted an ultimate guide to anything, just run away from that site!
From the moment Lara was about nine months old and I started having a bit of a confidence that she wouldn't die on me, I also started saying “Once she turns 4-5, I'll grab her and travel the world.”
Then, when she was two, I read a Trans-Siberian article and I knew I had to do that one day too. And that I would continue on my way once I started. (I don't like returning the same way. Also, I see the world as a whole. You don't travel 1/4 of the way around the world and turn back, you do a round ;)
When I researched a bit, I saw that the Trans-Siberian train was free for children under four years of age. (We had gone to Mauritius before she had turned two because after that we would have to pay full-price for her. Of course, this is just an excuse to do something, an incentive.) So in the end we did a 99 Days Around the World tour starting with the Trans-Siberian when Lara was 3.5 year-old.
In one of our flights, we had met an Italian-Russian couple who have a daughter same age as our daughter. When we told them of our Trans-Siberian plans they both went “Are you crazy?!” They said the trains were horrible, the ride boring, there was no way they'd ride that train. Especially with a kid. “Ekaterina would bring the train down,” they remarked.
That gave me a pause. I questioned myself, was I really attempting something so stupid? Was even the thought of it silly? After thinking it over long and hard with my husband, we decided we'd still do it. I wanted to do it so much. Trans-Siberian is the dream of travellers and it had been at the back of my mind for a long time.
We had not known each other much with this couple. The second time we met, only the father came to visit us in Rome. When he saw Lara he commented “Of course you'd go with this.” Lara is a pretty calm child.
Then we went and saw them in Kaş, where they live. When I saw Ekaterina, I thought to myself but did not tell it to them: “Of course you cannot travel with this.” Ekaterina was an agitated, restless child, like most kids her age, running around, with constant need of stimulation. I have to say I was critical of the way she was being raised, they had all these toys that make sounds, with lights blinking; Ekaterina was constantly pressing a button, making noise. I don't want to paint a wrong picture of my child. Lara seeks constant attention sometimes and can really be a nuisance. Yet, she is calm and knows how to entertain herself quietly too.
Especially at that age she was into Donald Duck comics of her father. Give her one of those books and she could spend an hour or more carefully scrutinizing all the drawings. I thought I'd put one in the bag for the trip and that would keep her busy on the 6 day long Trans-Siberian train without any stops. Lo and behold, I forgot the book! To my amazement, it turned out fine. Lara had us, her parents to herself and was fine talking with us and playing word games. A 6.5 day travel in a closed box was a breeze with my 3.5 year-old.
That being said, when we got to Los Angeles after a long-haul Pacific flight, things were different. We were all exhausted from the trip, add the jetlag. To top it off, my husband left his backpack which had all his important documents, money and computer inside the airport. He realized it only after we came out of immigration and exited the airport. Luckily, this being LA, they had spotted the backpack and given it to the airline. That delayed us more than an hour and a half. Finding the AirBnb, putting our stuff in, I was so crashed. To top it off, Lara was throwing a tantrum for I don't remember what now. I seriously felt like holding her by the arms and throwing her out of the window! It was that unbearable.
We were on the first-floor, so that would have been just putting her out of the window, and of course there's no way I'd do such a thing, but the impulse was definitely there. I wanted her out, shut up. Mind you, she is the most valuable creature in the world for me; she is the one for whom I would let all other children of the world die. Yet, at that moment, my nerves could not bear her existence. That's motherhood.
The bottom line is... Sure, I believe it's important children are exposed to the differences of the world at a young age. I am proud of my daughter's social skills, being comfortable with anybody. It's so nice to see her interact with children of other worlds. In Madagascar, it was so nice to hear that she played with children and animals when we left her with the tour-guide while we went trekking in the Tsingy. She was 6.5 then. I know some of her 8 year-old friends do not even sleep at their grandmother's. Lara was 3.5 when on one of our cruises an elderly lady offered to babysit her and put her to sleep in her cabin so that we could have some alone time with my husband. We had our doubts of course. Leaving her with a stranger... Something to note is that I've never left her with a baby-sitter, the few times I ever had someone to come look after her, I was always there in the house together. Anyway... Considering we knew the lady a bit, this being a long and expensive cruise the passengers were sort of elite or at least had a different quality than your ordinary cruise, we decided to give it a go. Of course we were curious to know if everything was alright and called on to check. Then we went and picked up a sound asleep baby.
A similar thing happened while visiting the islands in the Pacific. We were in Rangiroa by the sea, putting Lara's feet into the water. Children quickly surrounded her; they wanted to take her out swimming. Well, Lara didn't know how to swim, I sure wasn't going to leave her in the hands of these tiny children! We did not have our swimsuits as we weren't planning to swim. What if anything happened to her?
Then I put things into perspective... These children grow up by the sea, they are also given responsibilities to look after young siblings when they are basically babies themselves, they are perfectly proficient and capable of handling other children. So much that they could even be better than me in handling Lara at sea!
I figured we would go in with our clothes anyway if an emergency arose. I decided to trust them. We were there, keeping an eye of course. What we saw was children being children, it was so nice to see them interacting without prejudices. Unfortunately, in some other parts of the world, in poor countries which are more touristic, or I don't know... It depends on the place perhaps... Children see “white” children and start begging, start asking for their clothes, their bracelets etc.
Anyway... What I'm trying to say is this:
Whatever value there is in travel, it is not a must. Thou shalt know your child and yourself. Thou need not travel unless you feel you are ready. I did not take my first foreign trip until I was 22, I don't feel I lack anything. Now there is a girl who has been to every country before she turned 22. I'm sure she has developed skills and knowledge that I did not possess at that age. However, she still lacks the wisdom to process her experience. As Seneca said, your having been tossed around a lot doesn't mean you've gained wisdom. In fact, most of the travel community today lack any wisdom. They are just travelling the world looking at themselves. No need to add one more to the numbers of such people. One can improve himself/herself just as well by sitting at home, observing, reading and thinking.
If you insist on travel, just be ready to make whatever experience you have as valuable as possible. Be it as a lesson, or knowledge of your and/or your child's limits. Also, just know that it will not be, can not be as enjoyable as when you were travelling kid-free. Yet, there are the the joys of having your child witness some spectacular sites, savor those moments to the fullest.
Ahh... And if you see an article named “The Ultimate Guide to Travel With Kids” or similar, just know it is the Ultimate Bullshit.
Please please please... I'm begging you... Please... Don't buy into any of the glorious photos of families travelling together. Sure, they have their happy moments; then again, sure, they have the crappy moments -which are generally a much higher percentage- that they do not show to you!
They are just ego-boosting or trying to get credit for themselves by boosting an industry.
We had a very unpleasant experience with Jean-Claude, a local tour-guide in Madagascar. We had booked Jean-Claude privately through a personal suggestion and later found out he worked with ToursByLocals. For those who do not know, ToursByLocals is a peer-to-peer travel company connecting local guides with travellers.
During our trip, Jean-Claude said that ToursByLocals provides counsel when an issue arises with a customer; hearing this and going through their website I was impressed with their attention to quality and perfection. I wrote and told Jean-Claude to discuss the matters that caused our conflict with him and ask their opinion if he didn't believe or agree with my points. I had no doubt that ToursByLocals would be backing us up on both issues: how to do the fuel cost and protecting customers from being hassled.
But it was obvious he was not going to consult them. So I took it up on myself to inform ToursByLocals. The answer I got was this:
“All the guides on our websites are independent guides who are provided marketing through our websites. As a 5-star company, we provide assistance to assurance to all travellers who book tours through our website about the standard of service and experience they will receive.
While we take all claims against our guides seriously and we will monitor Jean Claude's behaviour in the future, we have no authority to provide any compensation for tours not booked through our website. I suggest that you take this up with the company that you booked your tour through, or if you did it directly you will have to take it up with Jean Claude yourselves.
It is a shame to hear of your disappointing experience and in future, if you book through ToursByLocals we will ensure that a 5-star experience is given.
I wish you luck in being able to sort your issue.”
I couldn't help the snigger. Wish me luck in being able to sort my issue?!! What a disingenuous, feigned wish is that! Nobody ever pays money back unless they are very honest and they wouldn't have done such a thing in the first place if they were honest. We live in an age where even the big companies making the big bucks resort to cheap tricks with the bills, TIM charged me 15 Euros for 10 KB of downloads even when my billing type was not supposed to be like that. Get it back from them if you can. You just let it go because it's not worth your time and energy. That's how most companies work today.
I underlined the important sentence in their answer. Yes, it is a shame to hear of my disappointing experience. It is a much much bigger shame that ToursByLocals tells me so openly they will ensure a 5-star experience if I book through them and do not care if their guides cheat people not booking through them! I am in awe, with disgust.*
May I say I was not much surprised but disappointed by this response. I wrote back:
“From your message, I get it that you are saying 'We do not care if our guides cheat their customers while working privately, as long as they do not cheat our customers and we make sure they cannot and do not cheat our customers anyway.' Is that right?
I'm supposing it's not. And I'm sorry if I couldn't explain myself very well again. We are not looking for compensation, we already took it up with Jean-Claude even though we were sure he wouldn't compensate us at all. He got the money, why should he be giving it back? Nobody really ever does apart from very quality companies. Not even the big name ones. As long as there is no threat to his earnings and no sanction from a higher authority, no reason for Jean-Claude to do it.
I did NOT write to you to sanction him, but to advise him on the matter of calculating gas money, as I am sure it is general knowledge how it is done with renting a car and you'd confirm what I have told him.
Also, I wrote thinking you might advise him that it is his duty to take care of and watch over his customers. This is no light matter. Being scammed while with a tour guide, especially after we have asked if it was a scam. You can be sure, if we were alone, that never would have happened. It was Jean-Claude's duty to keep unsolicited hordes of people away from us and we trusted him.
We wrote to you because we believe you would not want bad publicity for one of your tour-guides on travel groups and on the internet, we believe it's not good for one's reputation to be associated with such people.
We wrote because from your values, we thought you'd want to work with people with integrity.
Thank you for your concern anyway.”
I did not hear back from them again. Not that I expected to.
Moral of the Story:
Jean-Claude doesn't resort to cheap tricks when working with ToursByLocals, he knows he will get a negative return on it, he knows he will have to pay the price of his cheap trick. He cannot risk his means of livelihood. He will never act the way he did with us when working with customers of ToursByLocals.
So where does this leave us?
a) We either always have to go through sites that guard our back in case of a problem, paying them 20-30 % extra. Which may be fine. You may think of it as an insurance of some sort. After all, they are adding value to your experience by finding trustworthy guides and making them behave.
b) We take our own risk and pay for any mishaps.
I'll be honest with you, as I always am... As I said, I heard about ToursByLocals through Jean-Claude, it was not vice-versa. So it wasn't that I stole their guides going around them. Had I known ToursByLocals before booking Jean-Claude, I still wouldn't have booked it through them. Even taking into account the amount of money we paid extra for fuel and got swindled, we are still in the plus.
So was it wrong of me to write to ToursByLocals and expect them to help me out in this situation?
I wouldn't say so... I am a strong believer in integrity and for the right things to be done. I had some hope that a company like ToursByLocals would have integrity and sort out the issue by advising Jean-Claude. I was wrong. No big deal. I tried. All life is an experiment and experience; you test people and companies. I sure won't recommend ToursByLocals to anybody even though they might provide value.
It's not fine for a big company to say “It's fine with us if the people we work with act 'wrong' or immorally, as long as they do not act that way towards OUR customers.”
Perhaps I am asking for too much. Companies, after all, are institutions set up to make profit. They are not supposed to be moral. Perhaps it's my high standards that do not align with the realities of the world. Oh well... It almost never does. I got used to it by now, and came to accept it. Still... I cannot help but wish for a radical change of mentality in people and institutions.
Please at least say “Amen”.
Even if it is hoping for the impossible...
* Upon re-reading this piece some time later on, I realized I was too harsh. Perhaps it is too much to expect so much care and attention from that level of Customer Care. And the management level is generally not interested, doesn't get involved. Perhaps that's the doom of companies or the unluck of us customers. Nobody hears us who has authority.
Please read the update on ToursByLocals and Jean-Claude, Self-Interest versus Integrity to see how this ordeal progressed and ended.
PS: Please also read Scandal at Booking. The giant company who keeps on working with a business doing illegal transactions. They just shush the rare customers who realize the disguised sneaky swindle by giving them a refund. Then, It's business as usual.
As far as I understand, there are two types of guides if you want to go with a tour in Madagascar. One is the foreigners who have set up travel agencies, the other is locals. As can be imagined, foreign travel agencies are much more expensive than the locals. I suppose their services are a bit above the average of the local guides even though I'm not sure if it's worth the price difference.
Anyway... Of course it's always better to support the locals, so we decided to go with Jean-Claude. Even though I read he was way expensive than other local guides, it was fine as we see travel as contributing to the economy of the country. The tour went fine, Jean-Claude was friendly and on time with everything, all was smooth. I wish we had only good things to say about him. Things soured on our return trip and we left Madagascar with a bad taste in our mouth.
It started when I mentioned to Jean-Claude that he should have told us how much the gas for the car would cost. Sure, he had mentioned the gas of the car from Antananarivo to Morondava and back was not included in the price, but I had just assumed it would be something negligible like 50 USD or so. My mistake, I admit. Instead, it turned out to be 200 USD. Another local had asked us for 1000 USD for the whole trip including gas; we had paid Jean-Claude 1150 USD without gas. As I said, I was ready to pay 15-20 % more than the normal, but ending up paying 35 % more did not feel nice at all.
That's still not the problem. What Jean-Claude did was come empty tank to pick us up from the airport, make us fill it up and on return fill it up again to have half a tank full upon leaving us. Still, not important. We could have considered it as gratuity. But it sure felt like a sneaky way of cheating, -like small letters written in hidden corners in contracts-, which is never nice.
I said “felt like” because I thought they might not know how to do such things in Madagascar. I give people the benefit of the doubt. So I told Jean-Claude that if one is to pay for the gas, the car is given full tank and then left full tank on return. This is where things got ugly. Instead of acknowledging the advice, Jean-Claude retorted “We always do it this way.” The way he responded made me think: So perhaps, it was in fact a sneaky cheating, done knowingly.
Then I told him he should have told us how much the gas would cost in advance. He claimed we should have asked the price, that some of his customers ask. I don't know why he couldn't simply say “Yes, perhaps it would have been better if I had told you. Next time, I'll be doing that.” But he didn't.
No, instead, he still tried to assert his position claiming we should have known the price of gas, how much it would cost for the distances we were to travel! Now... Sure, we could and should have asked. But again sure, he could and should have told us how much it would roughly cost. And I actually asked how much cash we should be taking with us and he did not mention the gas cost being 200 USD even at that point. So that was a very nasty surprise.
What's more, as I said, he didn't charge us the fuel used, they (together with the driver) calculated and charged us EXACTLY 200 USD, which was more than the gas consumed in our trip, about half a tank more. The issue here is not the money but Jean-Claude's approach, his attitude. Cheating and then defending his cheating!
This still is not the big issue. At the airport on our return, the moment we parked, before I could even get out, we were surrounded by locals; they had blocked the door and were begging us to give them paper bills for coins. They said “Problem with the bank.” There were about 8-10 people between me and my husband, all shrieking “Please please please...”
The way they were asking, swarming around us and distracting attention, I suspected something was wrong and asked “Jean-Claude, is this a scam?”
He replied “I don't know” and went on checking his phone.
Seeing his unconcerned, calm attitude, and knowing that banks do not accept coins when exchanging money, we wanted to help them out.
Guess what? Of course it was a scam!
We realized this only after getting into the airport and counting in peace. They had counted the coins in their hands, they must have given us less than half of it, mostly the 10-20 cents that they counted last, keeping the big coins in their palm.
I actually remember very clearly. I was about to count the money they gave in my hand, and they started making turmoil “Please madame please, me too” etc. This was of course meant to distract my attention. I'm sorry to say it worked.
It feels miserable to be tricked. It feels even more miserable to be tricked when you were trying to help someone out.
It also feels miserable to be tricked when there was someone there whom you had paid and who should have covered your back. This shouldn't have happened under the watch of a private tour-guide.
Confronting Jean-Claude with this and his not doing anything while we got swindled, he became very aggressive and tried to blame us as he did for the gas money. He said we were adults and we should have been more careful. Sure we are adults; on the other hand I'm sorry but it was his responsibility to protect us. We could have been idiots for God's sake! He should have warned us to not deal with money with unknown people. Besides, I have asked if it was a scam. I felt something was going on, I was suspicious. He should have done his duty and interfered on our behalf. We hired a guide to protect us from any kind of harm. As adults we could have travelled on our own; however, we have a 6 year-old and travelling as a family in an impoverished country, we wanted the protection and guidance of a guide. Such a thing should NOT have happened under his watch. Mind you, this definitely would NOT have happened had we been on our own. I would not have dealt with a crowd of people knowing that I'd be robbed somehow. It's NEVER OK when you are alone and there is a crowd around you. I felt helpless not being able to reach my husband who was out and surrounded by these people while I was in the car, with people blocking the door. Jean-Claude was there, doing nothing but watching!
It's true, sure, we are responsible; however, again sure, we believe Jean-Claude is responsible too. His lame excuse of putting the blame on us instead of saying sorry is unacceptable. It is part of his job to keep unsolicited requests away from us. He had done a similar thing with people begging us to buy things. It was obvious we did not wish to buy anything, but they were pestering us even after we got in the van. Jean-Claude waited and waited. He was sitting at the back, doing nothing but watching. I felt very uncomfortable. I have no trouble saying “No”, however having to say “No” a dozen times is exhausting. I bought one more thing after already buying three things I didn't want in the first place. Then I had to turn away my head. I couldn't take it any longer. Only then did Jean-Claude close the car's door and told the driver to move. When I confronted him, Jean-Claude defended himself and them saying “It's their job to sell.”
They weren't trying to sell! They were pressuring us into buying. Pressuring and pestering! Those are two very, VERY different things. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries, even in Africa. In such a poor country, you feel compelled; with so many around begging you to buy something you feel obligated to buy things you really don't want just to help out a little. However, as neither we nor anyone (not even Bill Gates!) can help everyone in such a situation, and there is no end to this we had to turn our backs in the end. I understand, Jean-Claude may have wanted his kinsman to make money, but it shouldn't have been at the cost of our being harassed.
I suppose that's something unavoidable when one travels to such poor places, that's why I have decided not to travel to Africa with my family anymore. I thought coming with a tour would prevent such situations; apparently it may not, and if not, it is very bothering.
Coming back to the swindling story... Jean-Claude once again tried to defend himself by claiming he thought we had Ariary left on us and wanted to change it back. Which is just so unacceptable because we had changed 2 USD from him to get Ariary to pay for a small souvenir right before getting to the airport. So he definitely knew very well we did not have any local money on us and we did not need to exchange. Unfortunately, all this made us think he might have been in on this scam. It's not nice, we are not claiming he is, he probably wasn't, but unfortunately a question mark arises when a guide is so nonchalant even when you have asked if this is a scam. Jean-Claude's behavior was inexcusable, but his lame excuses afterwards are even more inexcusable!
What's worse, he started answering our messages in capital letters, which is shouting. Totally unacceptable, uncivil, vulgar behavior.
During our trip Jean-Claude had mentioned he worked with ToursByLocals and that they provided counsel when an issue arose with a customer. So I told him to check with ToursByLocals to find out about the things I said. I had no doubt that they'd be confirming how the gas money is done. I was also sure they'd be backing me about being hassled by peddlers/hawkers as their foundation story is based on such an experience.
Jean-Claude retorted “Why should I be doing that?”
Obviously to learn and improve his services! But again obviously, he had no intention of doing that.
In the end, I asked him:
1) Do you really think your customers should have to know and calculate fuel prices for the distances you quote, or do you think it’s more reasonable that you give them full information?
2) We believe that when locals jump on your customers you are supposed to keep them away. Do you think “I don’t know” is an answer to give to a customer asking if this is a scam?
He did not answer.
We have been swindled about 90 Euros. Jean-Claude's original quote to us, including the gas money, ended up being 300 Euros (350 USD) more than another local tour guide gave us. So we asked him to pay us back 100-150 Euros -I believe it is quite a fair and reasonable request given how much money he made out of us in a place like Madagascar and given his responsibility in the situation- but of course he didn't.
We let it go. I mean what can you do anyway? He's got the money.
However, I could do one thing. Report this to ToursByLocals myself. Which I did. Unfortunately, I got a very disappointing answer from them. Please read about their response here: ToursByLocals
As I had used up the two resorts, i.e. the personal and the higher authority, there was only one more left. To write this post with the hope of warning other people. I want to emphasize one thing strongly: I never wish to “play with anyone's bread” as we say in Turkish; meaning I would never want to be the cause of someone's losing a bread-earning job. However, I also have a strong wish for people who deserve better to make money. Money should definitely be going to people with integrity more than the ones who seek it aggressively. Unfortunately, the way the world is set-up rewards the latter ones. I wrote this in the hope to just make a dent in the better direction.
Conclusion: I'm sure you'll be fine if you go with Jean-Claude through ToursByLocals. In fact, he includes the price of fuel in the cost of the tour on the page of ToursByLocals
He does not resort to the gas money cheap-trick while quoting the price of the tour on ToursByLocals. I also have no doubt he will be extra careful not to get any negative reviews there so he will be protecting you from street-sellers and scammers. Even if not, I'm sure you will be refunded by ToursByLocals in case of any issues. They are a five-star company and from what I have read online take great care to keep up their reputation. However, if you are like me in the sense that you would like to give your money and business to decent, humble people with integrity, to people who will not resort to cheap tricks when not kept in check by a higher authority, please avoid Jean-Claude.